Our 2022 NFL Preview stays within the AFC South, where the Colts look to put their unceremonious collapse behind them and return to the postseason. With a win on the road at division rival, Jacksonville, the only thing separating Indianapolis from a third trip to the playoffs in four years, (Head Coach) Frank Reich’s troops shockingly fell on their collective face against the worst team in the league, leading the franchise to once again make significant change at Quarterback, eventually acquiring the services of Matt Ryan. Does the veteran have enough left in the tank to take Indy to the next level? What does Jonathan Taylor have in mind for an encore to his rushing crown? Is Reich on the hot seat? Let’s take a look, shall we?
Last season was indeed an uneven one for the Colts, who after stumbling out to an 0-3 start, proceeded to win nine of their next twelve games, before dropping their final two contests and missing the postseason. The biggest component of their success was the rushing prowess of the prolific Jonathan Taylor (pictured), who set the NFL on fire in his second season in the league. Voted 2021 Offensive Player of the Year, the All-Pro Tailback churned out a whopping 1,811 rushing yards and eighteen touchdowns, while also reeling in forty receptions for another 360 yards and two scores. From weeks four through eleven, Taylor amassed at 100 or more yards from scrimmage and at least rushing touchdown in eight consecutive games, tying the longest such streak in NFL history. Furthermore, he was both a unanimous Pro-Bowl and All-Pro First-Team selection, while also finishing 500 yards ahead of the nest closest rusher, marking the first time that had happened since 1973 (O.J. Simpson). He is also the youngest player in NFL history 2,000 scrimmage yards and twenty scrimmage touchdowns in a single season. During that aforementioned 9-3 stretch, the 23-year-old averaged 121.2 rushing yards on a robust 5.7 yards per carry. However, in those other five games that bookended the campaign, he could only muster 71.2 yards on 4.6 yards per attempt. So, now the only question that is on anyone’s mind is what this guy has in store for 2022? Will the Colts continue to ride him throughout the length of the season, or will they try to ease some of his workload so that he finishes stronger? Word out of training camp is that Reich and his coaching staff are devising ways of using both Taylor and fellow Tailback, Nyheim Hines, on the field together, which is something that worked very well in limited reps. Both players are excellent pass-catchers out of the Backfield, as the latter totaled forty receptions of his own for 310 yards and a touchdown. If we’re keeping score, that’s a combined eighty receptions and 670 yards from both ‘Backs, which on one hand is as indictment on the Receiving Corp as it is a compliment to the Backfield. With that said, that could all change with the addition of a certain veteran signal-caller…
The Rotating Door
If there has been one constant in Indianapolis over the past four seasons it has been constant change at the game’s most important position: Quarterback. Every offseason that they have been in charge, (General Manager) Chris Ballard and the aforementioned Reich have been in the market for a new starting passer. In 2018, it was Andrew Luck, who shocked everyone and retired following a Comeback Player of the Year campaign. In 2019, his backup, Jacoby Brissett did his best to fill the void left by the former top overall pick. In 2020, Phillip Rivers was signed in free agency, with the former Pro-Bowler leading the Colts to the playoffs before retiring shortly thereafter. Last season saw Reich reunited with Carson Wentz, whom he coached during the mercurial Quarterback’s formative years in Philadelphia, only for their reunion to be marred by uneven play and inconsistency. Wentz was particularly dreadful in that damning defeat to the Jaguars, ultimately leading to his ousting in a trade to the Commanders. However, Indy turned right around and engineered a trade with the Falcons for their longtime franchise signal-caller, Matt Ryan (pictured), who promptly asked to be traded after getting word of his team entering into the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes. Focusing on Ryan, the 37-year-old enjoyed fourteen largely successful years in Atlanta, leading them to six playoff appearances, including an NFC Title in 2016, before falling apart in that memorable collapse in Super Bowl LI against the Patriots. A four-time Pro-Bowler and an MVP (2016), Ryan has also proven to be one of the best in the sport when it comes to performing in the clutch, amassing forty-two game-winning drives, including thirty-three fourth quarter comebacks. Needless to say, he is certainly an upgrade over Wentz and should benefit greatly from a vastly superior Offensive Line and rushing attack than what he’s played with in recent years. With that said, it will be interesting how he elevates a largely inexperienced Receiving Corps; none of the Colts’ pass-catchers are older than twenty-five and none have logged more than thirty games. Michael Pittman Jr is coming off a career campaign with eighty-eight receptions for 1,082 yards and six touchdowns, while (Rookie) Alec Pierce should get plenty of opportunities to grow under the leadership of the veteran Quarterback.
The Hot Seat
While the general consensus surrounding Frank Reich is a positive one, there is potential for his seat as Head Coach to get uncomfortably warm this season. As detailed earlier, the revolving door at Quarterback hasn’t been a necessarily ideal situation for the 60-year-old, though the former QB has done an admirable job in navigating from one veteran passer to another. However, one can’t help but feel that the stain of last season’s tryst with Wentz could linger, particularly if this latest partnership with Ryan doesn’t work out. By and large, Wentz arrived in Indianapolis on Reich’s vouching, with the time that they had spent between 2016 and 2017 in Philadelphia serving as the foundation for their relationship. As the Eagles’ Offensive Coordinator, Reich developed Wentz into a legitimate MVP candidate before the sophomore suffered a torn ACL late in the campaign, with the coach’s renowned work with his backup, Nick Foles, leading to glory in Super Bowl LII. Of course, that success is what led to Reich being hired by the Colts in the first place, making that reunion with his former protege all the more poetic. Unfortunately, he couldn’t fix the issues that had plagued the former Eagle since said injury, with that aforementioned disaster in Jacksonville proving to be the final straw; Wentz completed 17-of-29 passes for just 185 yards, with a touchdown, an interception, and a lost fumble, while taking six sacks in the 26-11 defeat. During the Draft Combine, both Reich and Ballard made it publicly clear that they were dissatisfied with the play of their Quarterback, with the former even going so far as to state that “he stuck his neck out for him”. A few weeks passed and Wentz was off to the nation’s capital, with Ryan added not long afterward. Though (Owner) Jim Irsay may consider that drama in the past, it could still come back to bite Reich in the backside. Simply put, Wentz doesn’t play for the Colts if Reich is not the Head Coach. And it’s with that said, that the skipper MUST find a way to maximize these late years of Ryan’s career, for failing to reach the postseason yet again in arguably the weakest division in the NFL will likely lead to more change in Indianapolis.
Projected Finish: 11-6
Though last season’s collapse was about as disastrous as the term could be, the Colts did an outstanding job in sending Wentz on his way and replacing him with the venerable Ryan. Though 37-years old, we have a feeling that the former MVP still has plenty left in the tank and could very well elevate the talent around him. With more consistent Quarterback play coupled with a punishing ground led by Taylor, the Offense has the potential to really take off, and if that ends up transpiring then Indianapolis should not only be the class of a week AFC South, but a legitimate contender in a conference that is littered with them.